Ladies and gentlemen, the 2020 election campaign has officially started, and it will be the longest campaign of your lifetime.
After promising to build 100,000 houses (and failing) and promising to build a light rail system in Auckland (and making very little progress to date), the government has announced it will spend $12 billion on infrastructure projects, focused mainly on roads and heavy rail.
Grant Robertson announced the proposed spending at the Half-Yearly Economic and Fiscal Update (HYEFU) yesterday, claiming that it is now the right time to borrow, as interest rates are historically low and the spending will be a stimulus to the economy.
$8 billion of the funds will be allocated to transport projects, the details of which will be announced next year, but Robertson says these projects are all ‘shovel ready’.
(Oh no they are not, Grant. Not even close.)
Robertson was deliberately vague about which projects will be earmarked for the spending, but it is believed that some of National’s ‘Roads of National Significance’ may be brought out of mothballs, as many of these projects were shelved when this government took over in 2017.
By his own admission, some of these projects are not consented as yet, so Grant’s definition of ‘shovel ready’ is wide of the mark of most people’s understanding of the term.
But hey. When did that ever stop this government from making promises that they are unable to keep?
The remaining $4 billion will be allocated over future budgets and will be spent on a mixture of short term spending and medium and long term spending to be brought forward. Again though, there was no detail about which projects are earmarked for this spending, as the announcements will be made next year.
Next year is, of course, an election year.
Economic growth is forecast to slow down over the next year, although Treasury predicts that growth will strengthen again by 2021. In the turbulent world we live in, that forecast cannot be considered as a certainty, by any means. Treasury has already downgraded its forecast for the 2020 year, from 3% to 2.2%. Treasury does not predict growth to reach 3% again before 2024, and no one can possibly have a clear idea what the world situation will be like by then.
This is partly the reason why Robertson has decided to announce the infrastructure spending now, as an economic stimulus. It all sounds very noble, and is, of course, a sop to those economists who have been asking the government to open up the chequebook for the last 2 years.
It is not that simple though, and after Kiwibuild, this government ought to know that by now.
Consenting for any project these days is a nightmare, and can take months or years to go through the process, particularly if the Environment Court is involved. Most of Grant’s ‘shovel ready’ projects are not fully consented, and some have not even started the process. Then there is the tiny problem of finding builders, roadworkers and other tradespeople. This was a major stumbling block for Kiwibuild, as most construction workers have projects ahead of them for several years. There are not hordes of builders sitting around, shovels at the ready, just waiting for a call from Grant. Most are already suffering from burnout and struggling to survive in the crazy world of construction nowadays. We could bring them in from overseas, of course, and we do, but then there is another problem. We have no houses for them to live in, and no rental properties available, so they often don’t stay here if they cannot find a roof to put over their heads.
Don’t forget that these roading projects also have to be approved by their coalition partners. NZ First will probably be fine with it, but what about the Greens, when Julie Anne Genter refers to motorists as ‘car fascists’ and threatened to bring down the government if the second Mt Victoria tunnel in Wellington was approved? Yep. This will go down really well with them. Cups of cold vomit come to mind.
None of these problems are new, and none of them have been solved. Robertson spoke today as if he had waved a magic wand and fixed it all so that we are ‘shovel ready’ to meet the next lot of projects coming our way. We are not.
The only thing this government seems to do well is sprinkle hot air and fairy dust: promises that sound great and get people’s hopes up but turn to nothing. This is just more of the same, but it will not turn into roads and heavy rail systems. Not any time soon, anyway.
But it is going to be a great election campaign, where they will do exactly what they did in 2017 and promise the earth… and hope they get re-elected so that they can let us all down badly once again.
Let’s Not Do This.